Joseph leaned against the hardware store’s outside wall, impatiently tapping his fingers. Its surface was cool in the shade of what promised to be another scorcher. He drew on his cigarette, then used the same hand to slide his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. His fingers trembled and the ash dropped to the dirty sidewalk.
He’d waited here every morning for the past week, sure that she would walk down this neighborhood street again. She’d shown up every couple of months, in her bright yellow dress, ever since they’d split.
He had some words for her. Finally.
Next to the hardware store stood a coffee shop and bakery, and further down, store-front businesses that had yet to unlock and lift the gates that kept their merchandise safe. It was early morning, and a few buses passed by, belching their soupy exhaust. An urban pedestrian neighborhood, residents crowded in the cheap apartments in the Rapson-era high rise and cheap housing stock a few blocks back from this main thoroughfare, walking to work in the local businesses, or to the nearest bus line to the downtown hotels and department stores. Underneath it all, the freeway whined nearby with the steady stream of cars hurrying their suburban passengers to city offices.
Per usual, the man in the hawaiian shirt leaned his heavy elbows on the black metal table that sat chained outside the coffee shop. His hairless head had begun to gleam in the humidity, and he reached down with a long-fingered hand to lift a tiny espresso cup to his pursed lips. What he lacked in hair on his head was made up for by the snowy hair on his tanned arms, and in his crumpled ears. Silently, he put down his cup, then straightened and unfastened the top three buttons on his shirt. His chest was covered in a crest of wiry, snowy hair, cushioning a fistful of gold chains that glinted in the morning sun. He winked at Joseph, who nervously smiled and quickly looked away and down the street. She would be coming soon, then.
He saw her, a flash of yellow skirt over long legs and tall, skinny-heeled sandals. Joseph dropped his cigarette butt and ground it beneath his boot. She was a block away, her dark hair swinging and shining, obstructing his view of her beautiful face. He knew it was her, though. He recognized the way she rolled her hips, swinging her skirt, the soft ripple in her yellow dress beckoning to him.
He had to talk to her.
She was moving fast on her tottering heels. He had to catch up, to explain about the many emails and phone messages, the times he’d called and left dead silence on the phone, unable to release the words that would bring them back to the time before. She had to understand. That was why he kept tracking down her phone number, why he had to use burner cell phones each time she changed her number and blocked him.
He broke into a run as she turned into an alleyway. Hot on her heels, he followed into the darkened and narrow alley. It sloped away and upward, to a patch of blue sky that was blocked off by a high metal fence, sharp spikes at the top of each bar. His boot heels rang across the worn cobblestones, past broken bottles and crushed cardboard boxes. No doors to the side, and windows high up the wall and bricked over. Where had she gone? Above the stink of night soil and urine, he caught the edge of her scent, a mixture of roses and cinnamon, and something razor sharp.
He sank to his knees.
At that exact moment, the weather had turned. She saw it in his face, his pupils contracting to pinpricks, pale blue eyes stretched wide open. His teeth clenched and sweat sprung from his temples and soaked his sideburns, then rolled off the hard lines of his jaw. She hadn’t meant to say it out loud, to break up the mutual silence of their living arrangement, but it had just come out.
How could Joseph not have known? She’d given him every possible opportunity to get a clue: left carefully casual folded-up notes on their shared dresser, failed to erase phone messages on their answering machine, even spent several unexplained nights away from their common bed. And how could he have missed the heavy scent of The Other on the blouse and collar of her yellow dress, the one she was wearing now?
He’d refused to notice, and now he couldn’t avoid it. He had nothing to say to her. So, she was off and running.
Funny how his easy-going acceptance and avoidance of conflict was what had attracted her to him in the first place. It had also made her betrayal too easy, and now she’d been forced to tell him point blank. Really, it wasn’t all her fault. She stared past him and out the window at the crest of snow that clung to the roof’s edge of the apartment house across the street. Grabbing her suitcase, coat, and plane ticket, she backed out of the apartment and pulled the door closed.
He leaned against the hardware store’s outside wall, tapping his fingers on the cool brick. His fingers found a weakness in the mortar and he picked and found purchase, scraping with one finger until it bled into the crumbling cement. He drew on his cigarette, and slid his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. Fingers trembling, he scanned the street for the flash of her yellow dress. His cigarette ash dropped to the dirty sidewalk.
He had words for her, if only she would come back.
Liz Husebye Hartmann
Carrot Ranch Prompt (02/16/17): In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher. It can be a sentinel like the Watchman formation that overlooks Zion Canyon, or a Big Brother conspiracy theory. How can you use a watcher to set a tone or present a twist?
Also based on numerous prompts from the Midtown Writer’s group.